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Caring? Compassion? How good are those funny neighbours across the ditch?

OPINION

In some respects, Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison and New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern are very similar. They were both elected to their positions as leaders of their respective parties not too long before general elections. Their elevations to these positions came after failures of their predecessors to win popularity, either among colleagues or with the electorate. Or both. They each won victories with slim margins. They grew up as Christians. They are both white. Physically, they are pretty regular folks. Not too big, not too little. He's a little on the dad bod side but that's to be expected at his age.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Picture: Getty Images

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Picture: Getty Images

The main similarity is that both are prime ministers of countries which have experienced terrible tragedies and hardship in the last 12 months.

That's all I've got.

But it is in that one similarity - the tragedies and hardship - where we see their greatest and most profound differences. It makes what they have in common utterly irrelevant. Just the last few days in each of our countries says it all.

There was a moment, in the 24 hours after the eruption of the White Island volcano, which tells the story of Jacinda Ardern's leadership. She goes straight to where the need is, straight to where the pain is. She doesn't think about her own convenience. She hugs those who need it, and stands shoulder to shoulder with others. Calm, competent and radiating warmth. Of course, she's had practice. At the murder of Muslims in Christchurch, she responded instantly. Not for her, emotional or physical distance. There can't be too many people who were unmoved by her swift embrace of those affected. She puts the needs of others, of her community, first. She doesn't trot out any attendant political agendas. Ardern is doing her best to soothe her wounded people.

Australia's tragedy can't be blamed on a volcano or on a deranged white supremacist. Six Australians have died because of the bushfires. Hundreds and hundreds of homes are razed. Forests disappeared. Koalas have gone from the firegrounds, and may never return. All we may have left are those videos of the koala being wrapped in a shirt or the koala holding the hand of the rescuer who provides drinking water.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern meets with first responders at the Whakatane Fire Station following the volcanic eruption at White Island. Picture: Getty Images

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern meets with first responders at the Whakatane Fire Station following the volcanic eruption at White Island. Picture: Getty Images

Scott Morrison is not without empathy. As soon as he was elected, he flew to Queensland's north-west to meet graziers from Cloncurry and Julia Creek whose properties had been flooded. About half a million head of livestock killed. And his opening words to them? "I've got one simple question, which is really a statement: how good is Cloncurry?" He's just thrown an extra $11 million at aerial firefighting efforts because people across Australia were shocked at his lack of action. How good is funding aerial firefighting?

It's also true that on December 8, months after fires began their devastation of NSW, he visited the NSW Rural Fire Service headquarters in Wilberforce to thank the firefighters and get the latest updates. Photos emerged of Morrison at the NSW RFS with hands in pockets, gazing at a map. He is often seen at emergency headquarters, in discussions with firefighters and police, with others who have institutionalised power. I'm glad he managed to squeeze in Wilberforce and also had time to drop in to Lachlan and Sarah Murdoch's Christmas drinks a few days before. Not sure whether he wore chinos and a blue open-necked shirt that night.

We also see him in a touching photo visiting Wauchope and Taree in early November. On Facebook he described it as an "incredibly emotional day as I visited Wauchope and Taree, two areas in NSW hit hard by these devastating bushfires to offer my support to those who have been through what can only be described as a harrowing trauma". He goes, but he doesn't go often. He doesn't go instantly. And as Australia burns and chokes, he's busy campaigning for an imaginary religious discrimination emergency instead of a climate emergency.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison at Canberra's bushfire crisis co-ordination centre in November. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Prime Minister Scott Morrison at Canberra's bushfire crisis co-ordination centre in November. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

There is one other major difference between Jacinda Ardern and Scott Morrison. Ardern campaigned with relentless positivity and a raft of policies. Morrison used fear, uncertainty and a scrappy handful of ideas around destroying unions, perceived threats to religious freedom, and keeping borders secure from a handful of asylum seekers held in offshore detention.

Ardern has delivered on much of her reform agenda. Extra funding for health, including $2 billion for capital works. The government banned all new permits for oil and gas exploration and has launched a $100 million green investment fund. It's committed both money and resources to tackling the overrepresentation of Maori people in prisons. Those on low incomes have had their payments increased by about $75 a week on average. Morrison doesn't have a reform agenda, as far as I can see, or not one which will assist those who are sick, those who are vulnerable, or Aboriginal people. He is, however, trying to reform how his government pretends to experience empathy.

There can be no more telling difference between our leaders than this. Ardern is a natural when it comes to showing that she and her government care. The Coalition, led by Morrison, had to hire empathy consultants to help them with "getting the tone of voice right and getting the narrative right" around the drought.

For this government, everything is a transaction. When everything is about making a deal, nothing is about considering the hopes and fears, the concerns and the horror, of a nation burning.

  • Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a regular columnist.
This story Caring? Compassion? How good are those funny neighbours across the ditch? first appeared on The Canberra Times.